Yesterday we learned that the Scottish Government has held three top-level meetings to discuss the prospectus for Scottish independence being prepared by the Scottish Government. The reaction seems to have been the usual split – unionists outraged, indy supporters delighted. Both miss the point.
If you have worked on policy development in government at all or have been involved with the development of legislation you will know that three top-level meetings doesn’t get you over much ground. When you’re dealing with something as complex as setting up an independent country, three meetings gets you next to nowhere.
I have been involved in the development of fairly simple single pieces of legislation, legislation where the broad intent is supported by all sides, where the overall intention of the legislation is clear and concise but where the detail causes some difficulties for some stakeholders.
Thinking of one in particular, I went through a cabinet-level stakeholder meeting, a subsequent ministerial meeting, a series of six lengthy negotiation sessions with the senior civil servants and a cabinet-level one-to-one to agree the final detail – that doesn’t include any of the internal meetings and that was on a pretty routine Bill with limited provision which only had one controversial element.
Let me put it like this; that legislation didn’t involve either establishing a new currency or dealing with the enormous liquidity problems which will result if the Scottish Government persists with the Growth Commission’s hare-brained scheme to use a different country’s currency without any control on monetary policy.
It didn’t have to deal with borders or cross-border trade arrangements in a complex situation where Scotland is negotiating its reentry to the EU while sharing a border with England. It certainly didn’t involve establishing a Scottish Defence Force in a period of unprecedented turmoil in Europe’s defence debate.
From a pretty low base I have developed a fairly solid understanding of the complexities in each of these issues by going through Common Weal’s White Paper Project which led to the How To Start A New Country book. Dozens of experts helped us, leading figures in their fields. There are no leading figures inside the Scottish Government (political or civil service) on currency issues, nor on borders – and certainly not on defence.
When you’re dealing with something as complex as setting up an independent country, three meetings gets you next to nowhere
That the agenda is being dictated by Sturgeon, Swinney and Angus Robertson, seemingly alone, does not give cause for comfort. I have it on good authority that no-one else in Cabinet is involved in this process. Sturgeon’s track record on ferries, Swinney’s on education and Robertson’s generally give reason to doubt that a couple of hours spitballing with the civil service is sufficient.
To put this issue into perspective, the Scottish Government held two top-level meetings with the oil and gas industry purely to choreograph their respective PR positions for the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Which means getting your ducks in a row with the oil industry for a two-week conference has received similar amounts of cabinet attention as the case for creating an entirely new country.
All of this is being railroaded through at a pace that is only explicable if we separate it from reality. In reality virtually no-one with any relevant experience of politics thinks we’re going to be having an independence referendum next year – but the pretence that there will be one is starting to look rather existential for this government.
In fact the First Minister (in a move that might be called ‘bold’) explicitly claimed that experienced SNP strategist Kevin Pringle is wrong to doubt her promise that this referendum will be held next year. With deep fractures in her party there is genuine worry being raised by still-loyal insiders about what happens if they don’t deliver that referendum.
It seems that this narrative (referendum next year for sure and anyone who doubts that is underestimating the First Minister) appears to be driving all else before it. The need to hold a party together with this narrative is creating the logic by which legislation is being produced. The attention being put into that legislation looks cursory based on the above.
In reality virtually no-one with any relevant experience of politics thinks we’re going to be having an independence referendum next year – but the pretence that there will be one is starting to look rather existential for this government
For both sides in the debate on the indy prospectus it seems to me that what they are currently focussed on is the wrong issue. If I were a unionist strategist I wouldn’t be leading on ‘see, they’re doing bloody independence things’, I’d be leading with ‘look, they’re doing independence things again – with the shoddy attention to detail with which they commission ferries’.
And if I were an SNP strategist I’d just be gently nudging those above me saying ‘right, you really do have a plan which delivers a referendum next year, right? No ifs, no buts, not later than October next year, right?’.
If they replied ‘yes’ I’d come back in with ‘and your indy prospectus isn’t being drafted on the back of an envelope after a couple of brainstorming sessions with you, John and Angus, right? It’s going to be extensively road-tested with respected independent experts – isn’t it?’
There is a real risk that this work is being done for appearance rather than substance. There are just shy of 50,000 civil servants in Scotland and ten are working on independence. That is about one civil servant per ‘tricky issue’.
Neither legislation for a referendum nor a prospectus for independence are matters that should be treated cynically as party management tools you don’t really think matter that much because you yourself aren’t really convinced you’re going to have to stand and fight on them.
If you’ve been involved with government legislation and you heard ‘three top level meetings and ten civil servants’, you’d have concerns that that is what is happening.